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Rabelais's unreadable books.

About twenty-five years ago, in the lobby of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, a friend introduced me to the already legendary Eugenie Droz. As kindly as her rather haughty manner permitted, she asked me what I was working on, and when I replied "Rabelais" she said condescendingly: "Oh, do you think there is any more work to be done on Rabelais?"

In the generation since that conversation a good deal of work has been done on Rabelais, much of it interesting and some of it new and exciting. M. A. Screech and his followers, most notably Jean Ceard, Edwin Duval, and Florence Weinberg, have greatly expanded our understanding of Rabelais the Evangelical Christian humanist; Carol Clark and Samuel Kinser have corrected many of Bakhtin's outdated views on Rabelais and carnival; Walter Stephens has illuminated Renaissance attitudes to giants and their relevance to Rabelais.(1) We have been stimulated, if not always convinced, by a cornucopian Rabelais (Terence Cave), a sophist Rabelais (Gerard Defaux), an esoteric Rabelais (Claude Gaignebet), a misogynist Rabelais (Carla Freccero and Hope Glidden), a civic humanist Rabelais (Diane Desrosiers-Bonin), and the list could be much longer. Articles on individual episodes in the four books can be counted by the dozen.

Unfortunately, despite all these well-intentioned attempts at exegesis, Rabelais's books are probably less accessible to the general educated reader, Anglo-Saxon or French, than they were a generation ago. They have become, to put it bluntly, unreadable, except by specialists armed with voluminous footnotes and critical articles. The non-specialist reader can certainly enjoy the scurrilous jokes and the erotic and scatological stories, but no amount of literary intuition will help her to guess, for instance, that Panurge's recounting of the "fables of Turpin" (2:29) alerts us to Rabelais's views on historiography (Ceard), that a quotation from Enguerrand de Monstrelet in the third book is an important clue to the structure of that book (Duval), that the explanation of the fantastically described monster Lent in the fourth book (30-32) lies in sixteenth-century medical terminology (Fontaine), or that the stones and metals of the child Gargantua's rings (1:8) carry specific references to Christian caritas (Weinberg). Even Eugenie Droz, I believe, would have been impressed by these and other such discoveries.

The major difficulties in understanding Rabelais undoubtedly lie in the complex intellectual context that only specialists can reconstitute for us. But Rabelais's language has also become an insurmountable barrier for today's reader; he wrote his own idiosyncratic version of Middle French, packed with quotations in Latin and Greek, dialect terms, and made-up words which occur nowhere else. All of which means that at least since the seventeenth century, Rabelais has been untranslatable; the most recent attempt by the late Donald Frame gives us the content, probably better than most others, but cannot give us the flavor of Rabelais's text.

Like most books Rabelais's pseudo-epic is riddled with references, both overt and implicit, to previous books. All we do is write glosses on one another, said Montaigne, some while before Umberto Eco. And many of the books that Rabelais is admiring, saluting, exploiting, or attacking as he writes are themselves now unreadable, also for a variety of reasons. I propose to focus here on three of these books, which I believe can help us to read Rabelais more appreciatively.

Though very different, they have some common characteristics: all were published before 1532; all went into many editions and were read all over Europe; and all are written in languages with which very few readers nowadays are at home.


The first of these now-unreadable best-sellers is the De asse by the great French humanist Guillaume Bude, first published in 1514, which has never been translated or received a critical edition. Bude is not read at all today, except by specialists, because he wrote almost exclusively in Latin, but to early sixteenth-century French intellectuals he was a super-star, almost, if not quite, on a par with Erasmus. Geofroy Tory in 1529 called him "Diamant & Perle entre les scauans & bien letrez Parrhisiens" (7), and named him, Erasmus, and Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples the three great humanists of the age (8v). The De asse is ostensibly a technical treatise on the Roman monetary system (the as was a small Roman coin), written in heavily pedantic and metaphorical Latin liberally sprinkled with Greek quotations. It is likely today to interest only a classicist specializing in ancient Roman economics. Its popularity in the sixteenth century can be gauged by the large number of copies extant (the British Museum has twelve, representing six editions between 1514 and 1551, while the Bibliotheque Nationale has a total of seven editions between 1514 and 1556), not counting the reprintings in Bude's collected works, and the several times reprinted summary of its main findings: a Breuiarium de Asse in Latin, and in French a Summaire ou epitome (sometimes titled Extrait ou abbrege), and a volume that I have not seen, called "Les fleurs du liure de asse."

Contemporaries, obviously, were fascinated by Bude's technical information about Roman coinage and its value, relative to other ancient coinages but also to that of Renaissance France. The few modern critics who have tackled the De asse are less interested in money, weights, and measures than in Bude's humanist comments on a wide variety of subjects including religion, good government, language, literature, and the glory of France. None of these comments are reproduced in the digests of De asse known to me.

The De asse can be, and indeed more often than not has been, called "unreadable," not only because of its language but because of its total lack of structure. Bude encourages his readers to see the technical content as primary by stressing in his preface his desire to contribute to the glorious rebirth of ancient letters and culture. He was very proud of this work and greatly expanded it in later editions; the 1514 printing has 172 folios, the 1516 has 193 (this is the edition quoted in this article), the 1532 has 202, the 1541 has 224, and the 1542 has 819 pages. But as far as I can tell from a little spot-checking, these voluminous additions were all to the technical passages of financial calculation and not to what all modern critics refer to as his "digressions." Bude's pride in his achievement was, one gathers, justified; this is the first attempt, often successful, to evaluate ancient coinage rationally and to correct the errors made by ancient authors, especially Pliny and Suetonius. Bude not only assembled every available literary passage on his subject, but collected ancient coins, weighed them alongside French coins, and consulted jewelers about the weight and value of gems, and as a result produced a landmark work in the field of classical archaeology.

But what does all this have to do with Rabelais? We know that the two men were acquainted, and we possess a disagreeably obsequious Latin letter (Demerson, 936-39) from Rabelais to Bude. Delaruelle and Plattard picked up a small number of specific references in Rabelais to works by Bude, but those involving the De asse are too few to justify calling it a major source. Is it worth examining this enormous rambling book in more detail?

I think it is, for three main reasons. Most obviously, the De asse has no discernible order, either overall or within each of its five books. Critics have unanimously faulted it for this: "no clear plan," said Delaruelle in 1907 (138), echoed in 1923 by Plattard's "mal ordonne, parfois mal redige" (21), and McNeil's "poorly organized, poorly composed, poorly written, and poorly edited" in 1975 (26). In one sense, Bude has only himself to blame for these strictures since he liberally sprinkled his text with digression signposts: "Sed iam a digressu in viam redeundum" (137v),(2) or "Vt ad rem longiuscule digressi redeamus . . ." (4v). Only two critics, La Garanderie in 1968 and Margolin in 1984, have tried to make sense of the work's "digressions," in my view misguidedly. La Garanderie sees a "secret harmony" in the work whose main subject is true philosophy, while Margolin proposes to substitute the word "commentary" for the word "digression."

But why should we assume, in our tidy modern way, that every work of literature must have a main subject plus digressions? Montaigne's chapter on sex (3:5, "Sur des vers de Virgile") is not an essay on sex with digressions on old age and poetic style; it is at the same time an essay on sex and women, an essay on old age, and an essay on style. Rabelais's four books, most critics would now agree, are at the same time a treatise on the ideal prince, a manifesto of evangelical Christian humanism, and a hilarious spoof of the epic tradition. Why not simply see the De asse as at the same time a treatise on coinage, weights, and measures; a running commentary on Pliny's Natural History and Ermolao Barbaro's reaction to it; and a passionate defense of French humanism?(3) After all, in 1517 Erasmus wrote to Bude: "Your De asse is a work in which everything hangs together, like the links in a chain" (La Garanderie, 1967, 111). Should we not at least try to take this judgment at face value?

Secondly, and still on the subject of order, the De asse is typical of many Renaissance works whose dominant technique I like to call trivial pursuit; the Renaissance called it amplificatio. This technique, a natural result of the emphasis on copia in Renaissance education, consists in choosing a topos and then enumerating every possible example, illustration, or aspect of it, most basically in the form of a list, as in Erasmus's 200 variations on "As long as I live I shall remember you," Ravisius Textor's 38 successive chapters on strange and improbable deaths, or Jean Lemaire de Belges's descriptions of natural beauty by means of enumerations of flowers and trees. More sophisticated trivial pursuit can be found in the blasons of Marot (everything the poet can find to say about the lady's eyebrow) and in the Hymns of Ronsard (all the stories ever told about demons and other supernatural beings). Rabelais's trivial pursuit is often facetious: 217 children's games in 1:22, 63 verbs of violent motion in the third book prologue, 170 adjectives for tired testicles in 3:28; and sometimes serious, as in the detailed description of the Abbey of Thelema.

So in this context it is hardly surprising that the De asse in its final version runs to 819 pages (did a two-letter word ever produce copia on quite this scale?). Nor is it surprising that it contains detailed information and speculation, not just about financial details like the wealth of the ancient Hebrews, the opulence of Lucullus's banquets and Nero's golden house, and the price Antony paid for the severed head of Cicero, but about apparently quite unrelated trivia like the boundaries of the Roman Empire, the measurement of the earth, Pliny's remarks on asparagus, French bread, Hercules as a figure of Christ, and the dearth of owls in Crete. Rabelais's four books are models of logical order compared to the De asse, but they share at least these two literary techniques: the writing of several books simultaneously and a delight in trivial pursuit.

Thirdly, and this paragraph is addressed specifically to Rabelais specialists, I see more verbal echoes of the De asse in Rabelais than Delaruelle and Plattard did. Are the fruit trees of Thelema, "all planted in the pattern of the quincunx" (1:55), an echo of Bude's personal recollection of his vineyard at St.-Maur in Book I (10v-11)? Does Panurge owe his name in part to Bude's quoting "Panurgus ille comoedus" in a speech of Cicero's (55v)? We could add to Plattard's list of names and terms used by both (Coraxian sheep, Pastophores, Ucalegon, Arimaspien and Otacuste) at least the following: Anagnostes (53), Xenomania as a term for error (102), Demosthenes and the play on angina/argentangina (123), a ship named Thalamegos (153), Homer calling bad priests inertia terrae pondera (170v), and islands of the blessed known as Macaron (176v).

Nor need we think of the two authors as fundamentally different because Bude was a serious humanist and Rabelais a comedian. Bude described Erasmus in a 1518 letter as a man enormously fond of all kinds of wit and joking (La Garanderie, 1967, 163), clearly a high compliment from an author who refers at the end of the De asse to his own desire to be a Democritus gelasinus. While there is little wit in his text, Bude is quite fond of the adjectives hilarus and festivus and quotes a number of facetiae by Augustus from "Macrobius lib. II. Saturn. de iocis." So I think he may well have shared Rabelais's pleasure in wit, even if the two are not as close here as they are in their mutual dedication to the restoration of good letters, to virtuous government by princes and popes, to the Christian ideal of caritas, and to the principle of animi aequitas (a marginal note to book 5 of the 1542 edition says "Animus aequus omnia in bonam partem interpretat," which will sound very familiar to readers of Rabelais).


First printed at almost the same time as the first edition of the De asse (1515), my second example is a very different kind of book. The Letters of Obscure Men (Epistolae obscurorum virorum, usually abbreviated as EOV) is a virulent satire that may well qualify as the century's most comic book after Rabelais. It is accessible, to some extent, to the modern reader in a French translation of 1870 (Develay), which I have not seen, and in an English translation of 1925 by Francis Stokes, reprinted in 1964. I say "accessible to some extent" because Stokes's version will strike an American reader as disconcertingly old-fashioned British English, and also because Stokes prudishly toned down a much more earthy original. For instance, he translates "Then was I sore afraid, and fell into such a pickle that I savoured ill in the nostrils of those who stood by" a passage from a letter by one Johann von Schweinfurth (2:63) that runs "Tunc fui ita perterritus quod perminxi et permerdavi me, quod omnes nasum praetenebant."

The EOV is essentially a satirical tract, the best-known weapon in a war of words known to historians as the Reuchlin affair (1509-20). Recently, some basic misconceptions about this book have been rectified, most notably by James Overfield, Charles Nauert, and James Mehl.(4) They have shown that Reuchlin was defending the jewish cause out of a concern for justice rather than a devotion to humanism, and that Pfefferkorn and his allies at Cologne were activated less by anti-humanism than by anti-semitism. Ortwin Gratius (van Graes), the recipient of these fictional letters, is portrayed in the book as a conservative theologian but was in fact a humanist, who certainly did not have the loose moral standards and gross personal habits of his fictional persona - habits that would be accepted as actual traits by posterity (Rabelais makes him the author of a work titled Ars honeste petandi in societate, 2:7). The book's caricature was so effective that it was taken to be a true portrait.

The mostly imaginary characters writing to Ortwin in the EOV all have ridiculous German-sounding names like Lyra Buntschuchmacherius and Eitelnarrabianus von Pesseneck. They are proud of being old-fashioned obscurantists who think that logic is the science of sciences (1:11), that the Pope is "lex animata in terris" (2.5), that Greek is not relevant to the study of Scripture (2:10), and that Walleys's allegorization of Ovid's Metamorphoses contains profound theology (1:28). They praise Pfefferkorn and scoff at Reuchlin and his supporters, but are usually more interested in arguing at interminable length such questions as whether the term magister nostrandus for a candidate for the degree of doctor of divinity should be preferred to noster magistrandus (1:1). They confide freely in Ortwin about their disreputable love-affairs, and one of them (1:37) assumes that Ortwin is having an affair with Pfefferkorn's wife and can therefore obtain the answer to a burning theological question: when a Jew converts to Christianity, are the visible effects of circumcision erased?

This hilarious exaggeration of what evangelical humanists most hated about Catholic theologians is clear enough from a translation; what cannot be conveyed except in the original is the comic variety of Latin styles. The writers are by turns turgid, pedestrian, precious, and abruptly colloquial ("ego bene merdarem in vestram poetriam," 1:3); neither their prose nor, more strikingly, their doggerel verse shows a trace of standard rules for accent and prosody. Their language suggests that however potentially dangerous their doctrinal bigotry may be, their crass ignorance and stupidity should prevent any educated person from taking them seriously, and their fatuous self-satisfaction reinforces this impression.

Most of liberal intellectual Europe roared with laughter over the EOV (although Erasmus and some German humanists strongly disapproved of them; cf. Mehl, 1994). Rabelais refers to them explicitly in the catalog of the Library of Saint Victor (2:7) and elsewhere and out of them created one of his most appealing episodic characters: Janotus de Bragmardo who in 1:18-20 appeals to the giant to return the bells of Notre-Dame. In the first edition he is a Sorbonne theologian with the title "nostre maistre" (magister noster); later, for reasons of prudence he became a sophist, so that the satire is no longer clear. Like most of the EOV characters, Janotus is stupid, ignorant, probably immoral (according to Cotgrave, bragmarder means "to leacher"), and hilariously pleased with himself - his "Ha, ha, ha, c'est parle cela!" recalls an EOV writer's "Ha ha ha! oportet me ridere" (1:43). He is capable of quoting Latin tags correctly (though not in the right context), but his own Latin is of the kitchen variety: "Ego occidi unum porcum, et ego habet bon vino."

His "belle harangue," as he calls it, has no logic or rhetorical order and consists of a string of inept pseudo-arguments ("We need the bells to preserve the vines from bad weather," or "I can offer you pardons if you will return the bells") and word associations ("Omnis clocha clochabilis, in clocherio clochando, clochans clochativo clochare facit clochabiliter clochantes"). References to Plautus, and to the French farce called Maistre Pierre Pathelin, add to the theatrical effect created by Janotus's juxtaposition of many varieties of style in both Latin and French; his speech is a dramatic monologue (punctuated by coughing and spitting) by a simultaneous personification of Bad Rhetoric and Bad Theology. It is by far the most comic speech in Rabelais's four books, and after it is over Gargantua's companions Ponocrates and Eudemon, and Janotus himself, "broke out laughing so heartily . . . that tears came to their eyes through the violent concussion of the substance of the brain" and so forth; this is the heartiest laughter in all of Rabelais. Did he still believe in 1534, as the EOV authors apparently did in 1515, that ridicule could be strong enough to triumph over stupidity and bigotry?

There are other humanist satires with which Rabelais could have been familiar; the only one known to me is the Eccius dedolatus of 1520, which most surely would have horrified Erasmus. Its butt is the Catholic theologian Johann Eck, to whom Rabelais will ascribe (2:7) a volume titled Maneries ramonandi fournellos, which is bad Latin for "How to Sweep Chimneys." Eck in this farcical and surrealistic dialogue comes across as the same kind of gross buffoon as Ortwin in the EOV, whereas he was in fact a well-respected theologian involved in some of the crucial controversies of the time (see, most recently, Backus). In one respect he is even more reprehensible than Ortwin: he is an arrant hypocrite who admits that his hostility to Luther is motivated by desire for fame and profit rather than conviction (Best, 58).

In the dialogue Eck, who is seriously ill, sends the witch Canidia on her goat to Leipzig to fetch a surgeon and is cured after being beaten into shape (dedolatus means "planed-down"), shaved, purged (he throws up commentaries on Aristotle and shits indulgences), cut open, and castrated. This is much more violent, and much more scatological, than the EOV, which by contrast appear almost gentle, but it uses wordplay, contrasting styles, and parody of classical passages with similar comic effect. Recent critics have stressed the obvious debts in both content and style of the Eccius to the EOV and called the former satyra ludens (playful) and the latter satyra illudens (more serious).(5) Despite the difference in genres - a modern reader might call the EOV an epistolary novel and the Eccius a play - their use of comedy in the service of satire is very similar.

They also demonstrate that humanist literature need not be as long-winded or as pedantic as Bude's De asse. What Rabelais found most appealing in the EOV, I think, was the coexistence of crude humor and ferocious satire, of which Janotus de Bragmardo is the most obvious example. He also found a variety of highly congenial comic techniques, from straight-laced presentation of grotesque opinions and situations to manipulation of different levels of style, which are important elements of his own comedy. Whether the EOV were a crucial influence or whether Rabelais simply saw in them what was already his own literary bent need not concern us; my only claim here is that study of the EOV can lead to greater appreciation of Rabelais the satirist.


While neither the De asse or the Letters of Obscure Men makes easy reading, even for competent Latinists (the first because its language is so sophisticated and the second because it is so colloquial), both can be read and understood by Renaissance specialists in literature and history. My third example poses even more serious comprehension problems. In 1517 appeared the first version of the comic verse mock-epic Baldus by the Italian humanist monk Teofilo Folengo, not in Latin but in Macaronic. Folengo writes reasonably correct Latin hexameters in reasonably correct Latin syntax, but his vocabulary mixes classical Latin with Renaissance "Italian" from different regions of the country - including dialect terms found in no dictionary. Here, to give you an example, is a passage narrating Cingar's arrival to help Baldus, who is besieged in the inn, without his sword, by the entire population of the city:

Ergo ruit qualis porcus singiarus in illos: Seque valenthomini Baldo piantauit apressum: Ac sibi cum speto facit vndique stare dabandam: Sbarratat gentem: sforacchiat: & arma fracassat: Mox rutilam Baldi spadam tulit extra guainam Quam pergens illi magna cum voce gridabat.

Ecce tuus iam brandus adest: hunc accipe balde Quem rogo sat similem corralo sanguine rossum. Baldus alegrus eum subito sbalzzando piauit. Perstrinxitque illum manibus furibunde duabus. Incipit en tanto crudelem quippe macellum: Quantum non fecit sub Roncis valle Rinaldus. Tu nisi per celsum palazzi monca solarum Brachia (text: Barchia) cernebas testas gambasque volare. Continet optatam longo iam tempore: spadam. (114)

There is no doubt that the Baldus is one of Rabelais's important sources, but the whole question of influence has been bedeviled by a bibliographic misunderstanding, which I have attempted elsewhere to lay to rest (Bowen). Folengo ultimately produced four very different versions of the Baldus; the last of these, known as the Vigaso Cocaio, was the basis for the French Histoire Maccaronique of 1606, which should not be quoted by Rabelais specialists since the Vigaso Cocaio was not published until 1552.

The 1522 version (known as the Toscolana), which I am quoting here, is divided into 25 cantos or Macaronicae. After a comic invocation to the Muses of Macaronic art, who live on a mountain larger than Mount Olympus with a lake of milk, shores of butter, and cauldrons perpetually cooking pasta, the story begins at Montauban in France. With a courtly tournament as background, the hero Guido, a descendant of the famous Rinaldus of Montauban, falls in love with Baldovina, daughter of the French king. They marry and flee to Italy where Baldus is born, Baldovina dies, and Guido goes off to become a hermit, leaving his son to be brought up by peasants. The next nine cantos take place in Cipada and recount Baldus's youthful hooliganism, his friendship with the rogue Cingar, the giant Fracassus and the dog-man Falchettus, and their cruel tormenting of Baldus's "brother" Zambellus. Baldus is imprisoned, and cantos 5 through 8 detail tricks by Cingar which do nothing to advance the plot (for instance, disguising a pot of shit as a pot of honey), but tell us a good deal about Folengo's scorn for peasants, Jews, and monks. Eventually Cingar's trickery gets Baldus out of prison and, after the epic battle in the inn, Baldus and Cingar escape from Cipada with a new companion, the noble Leonardus.

From this point the adventures follow each other so closely that a summary would be both inordinately long and probably confusing. Alongside the often-discussed episodes of the whale, the sheep-drowning, and the storm at sea, which are obvious sources for Rabelais, there are adventures on land, on sea, and in the underworld that involve a huge cast of secondary characters, including a centaur, a wild man, mythological beings like the Furies and the god Aeolus, sorcerers and witches, devils, a personified Manto (the founder of Mantua), 1300 pirates and assorted "real" people from all walks of life. Some of these adventures are fairly realistic, but most are completely fantastic. The companions find a cave containing a marvelous machine that is a working model of the universe (canto 12); Leonardus is killed by two bears on order of the sorceress Muselina (16); a dragon turns into a beautiful woman holding a book (20); tricks are played with stones of invisibility, and Cingar's nose grows to an incredible length (21); the companions float through the air to the house of Phantasia, which is held up by crickets (25). Some narrative coincidences are worthy of Voltaire; among the numerous "lost" characters miraculously found are Baldus's father Guido, who tells his story and immediately dies (17), and Baldus's two sons Cingarinus and Marcellinus, whom Cingar stumbles on in the underworld (23). These wildly unlikely events are interrupted from time to time by apparently extraneous material: a eulogy of Mantua and the Gonzaga (12); a meeting with the helpful magician Merlinus Coccaius (Folengo's pseudonym), who tells parts of the story in the first person (20); a list of contemporary composers (21); the council meeting of Ambition with speeches on the Guelfs and Ghibellines (24-25). Fantasy and magic become ever more pervasive as the companions descend into a partly mythological underworld, but the story (in this version) has no conclusion: it merely ends in a pumpkin (zucca) where feigning poets have to have a tooth extracted for every lie they tell.

The tone of this farrago is constantly changing; courtly/chivalric in canto 1, it is grittily realistic in 2-10, erudite in 13-14, and in the final cantos sometimes solemn and sometimes playful. Characters also change; Baldus the stone-throwing young delinquent evolves into Baldus the Christian warrior attacking the forces of darkness, while Cingar at different moments is a gratuitous practical joker, a courageous warrior, a snivelling coward, and a learned authority on astrology. Sometimes we seem to be reading a pseudo-epic, at other times a genuine epic, or a realistic "picaresque" novel, or a humanist treatise. So that although the Baldus is much more action-packed than Rabelais's four books, much more fantastic, much more violent, and much more scatological, the two works are similar in ways more profound than critical discussions of individual episodes might suggest.(6) Few works display this kind of combination of ferocious satire with hearty laughter, and few action-packed adventure stories are (or were) addressed to fellow humanist readers by erudite authors.

The entire Baldus can be seen as an elaborate spoof of Virgil's Aeneid, with numerous sly references to Dante. Folengo delights in parody of well-known literary tags, whether classical: "Omnia vincit amor: pudor hic superauit amorem" (74); "Parturient mures nascetur terribilia monstra" (92v); or Biblical: "Non homo: cingar ait: solo de pane cibatur:/Sed bouis: et pingui veruecis carne" (154v). He incorporates colloquial Italian very skillfully into his hexameters; the companions shout to encourage Cingar heaving on a rope to hoist the sail: "Cingar: e tira: tira: dai: dai: tira Cingar e: tira" (154). Less often than Rabelais, but quite strikingly, he plays with onomatopoeia ("tichi tich et tichi toch" for a donkey's hoofbeats, "tararan tantara tara" for a flourish of trumpets) and fantaisie verbale: an enraged Charon bellows "Cra cra: tif trafnot: sgneflet: canatauta: riogna" (217).

Both authors push to extremes their humanist fondness for playing with language. Both have enormous vocabularies incorporating erudite, popular, dialect and "carnival" elements, and both love to shift stylistic registers even within a single sentence. Hyperbole is natural to both: the boy Baldus fights with stones for three hours, while the battle in the inn lasts for six. They share a fondness for tripe and for picturesque curses; an inextricable mixture of elements from classical literature, popular carnival, and folklore, medieval epic and Renaissance humanism; and perhaps above all a driving, ferocious comic energy that transforms reality and fantasy alike into satirical weapons. Pangloss might have described both of them as satirico-philosophico-comico-humanist encyclopedias.

If I could meet Mlle Droz now, 25 years after our first and only encounter, I would like to say to her: "Yes, Eugenie, there is plenty more work to be done on Rabelais. We know a good deal more about his book than you did, but we are also conscious of how much we do not yet know. Scholars are just beginning to explore fascinating and potentially vast topics like Rabelais and law, Rabelais and medicine, and Rabelais and Hebrew. We are certainly not even aware of how many 'unreadable' books, which will still further expand our appreciation of Rabelais, remain to be studied."

This discussion of a few specific "unreadable" Renaissance books has not attempted to prove that they exerted a crucial influence on Rabelais, still less that they contribute to any definitive reinterpretation of his work. It does, I hope, imply that Rabelais's own books will become more readable the more they are read in the context of other Renaissance books, of which these are examples. From Bude's De asse we can learn much about Rabelais the humanist and his humanistic habit of writing several books at once and reveling in trivial pursuit for its own sake. The Letters of Obscure Men and the Eccius dedolatus show us just how effective gross caricature can be as a satirical weapon and how stylistic levels can be manipulated as cleverly in Latin as in the vernacular. The Baldus, mixing the epic, the pseudo-epic, the fantastic, and the erudite, throws intriguing light on the structure and tone of Rabelais's "novel."

These works also demonstrate dramatically how varied early sixteenth-century humanism was. Not just because Bude was a French Catholic, the EOV authors German with obvious pre-Reformation sympathies, and Folengo an Italian monk of Lutheran leanings, but because for each of them similar humanist preoccupations were expressed in astonishingly divergent literary forms. Bude wrote a straightforward humanist treatise, meaning essentially a commentary, even when inflated to 819 pages. His De asse helps us to understand why Rabelais, especially in the third book, sometimes launches into erudite disquisitions that have nothing to do with the matter at hand. The EOV authors created a parodic epistolary novel enabling their ignorant, prejudiced, and self-indulgent theologians to condemn themselves out of their own mouths without realizing that they are doing so, while the Eccius dedolatus set the same vein of satire in the form of a play. The Baldus took an exciting epic quest as frame and crammed into it a staggering hodgepodge of characters, literary styles, and humanist concerns, creating an indescribable literary jumble that has much in common with Gargantua and Pantagruel.

If this article has a conclusion, it is that the relationship between Rabelais and each of these three authors is worth much more detailed exploration than I have been able to give here, or indeed than I am qualified to give. Modern readers, whether their interests be literary or historical, find Erasmus congenial and Bude uncongenial, Pulci easy to read and Folengo difficult. This should not be a justification for concentrating on Erasmus and Pulci in the context of Rabelais's "novel" and neglecting Bude and Folengo. I have tried to show, not only that these "unreadable" books have claims on the interest of Rabelais scholars, but that they are in fact eminently readable and well worth the trouble to all scholars delving into early sixteenth-century humanism.


1 However, some of Stephens's views have been sharply contested by Demerson.

2 Quotations in this article are from the 1516 edition.

3 As Murphy correctly stresses, the praise of humanism for Bude is always tied to his support of political absolutism in general and of the French monarchy in particular.

4 I am especially grateful to James Mehl for his help and encouragement, and for the opportunity to read two of his articles in manuscript form. The contemporary atmosphere of humanist-scholastic hostility is usefully conveyed by Erika Rummel.

5 See Konneker, 155-68; and Mehl, 1994.

6 There has been, for obvious reasons, relatively little criticism on the Baldus. There are some useful articles in Bonora and Chiesa; see also the footnotes to my article. It is particularly unfortunate that all critical editions of the Baldus are of the Vigaso Cocaio text; perhaps some day we shall see an edition of the Toscolana.

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Title Annotation:Francois Rabelais
Author:Bowen, Barbara C.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 1995
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